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Posts Tagged ‘graphic novel’

Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a half

 

This is a book I wrote. Because I wrote it, I had to figure out what to put on the back cover to explain what it is. I tried to write a long, third-person summary that would imply how great the book is and also sound vaguely authoritative — like maybe someone who isn’t me wrote it — but I soon discovered that I’m not sneaky enough to pull it off convincingly. 

– Blurb on back cover of Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened (2013) by Allie Brosh.

Hyperbole and a Half is probably surely the best thing to come out of MS Paint. I didn’t even know you could actually put MS Paint to use, let alone develop content for the ‘funniest site‘ or ‘most humorous weblog‘.  And if I were an aspiring writer/cartoonist/graphic novelist, MS Paint would not even make my list of “tools to use”. I’ve been reading a lot of graphic work these past few years. I even discovered Osamu Tezuka, and started an as of now incomplete Buddha collection. Tezuka, who has been called the god of Manga, produced work that can qualify as sublime. Reading Brosh’s raw MS Paint caricatures of herself and her dogs, right after browsing through Tezuka’s work taught me one thing: art does not have to sophisticated to be good or great; crude can be brilliant. Of course, it would not be fair to either Tezuka or Brosh to compare their works with each other’s. Other than the use of illustrations, there is nothing, really, that they have in common.

Brosh, for instance, relies as much on her prolific writing skills as she does on her simple (not!), unrefined line drawings (that my pre-schooler found oh-so fascinating – “what IS that thing?”, he kept asking). Brosh also has the singular talent to convert the mundane, the important, and the nothings into a page of giggles.

The two ‘stories’ I found the most funny, and laughed the hardest for, are “The Party” and “Dinosaur (The Goose Story)“.  The second one in particular touched a nerve – I am the victim of a goose attack myself. I do not recall with relish or pride the time when a daddy goose flew several yards to hiss and spit at me. Recollecting my pathetic sputterings of “Hey! No!” before I ran in a random direction does not do good things for my self-worth. It didn’t end too badly though – while my kindly neighbors prepared to launch their own attacks, armed with heavy driftwood sticks and black shawls, to save my hysterical self, the goose decided to land a few inches from my head and waddle back to its brood. Apparently, this is typical goose behavior – geese never wander too far from their offspring, even when they are being mean. I was guilty of trying to take a picture of his day old goslings, though. In my defense though, goslings are cute, I was a good distance away from the family when I tried to take the pictures, and I did stop when I got the sense that daddy didn’t appreciate it.

The point of that little anecdote was not to one-up Brosh (her story is funnier, and she is way funnier), but only to point out that I share her goose-love and I was able to relate to her terror.

Brosh also writes (and draws) about depression, and uses the same stick figures and very little else  to talk about how debilitating her depression was, and difficult it is for “normal” people to understand what is going on, and how difficult it is for depressed people to explain how they are feeling, or even to conceal their true feelings from aforementioned “normal” people.

And then there are stories that I confess I didn’t fully understand or find very funny. Perhaps, my humor IQ is not very well developed.

Whether you want to spent a few hours reading some side-splitting stories that feature some mean stick figures, or if you are looking to read, laugh and ponder, Brosh might have written just the book for you.

Plus, if you own dogs, or are attracted to dog stories that are the opposite of warm and fuzzy, then you have no excuses not to read the book. She really does have a “simple dog” and a “helper dog”. If you are intrigued, run to your library or head over to her site.

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I am always drawn to the ‘two-week book’ shelves in the local library, even when I know I cannot reasonably expect to plough through my current book load in four weeks, or even eight weeks, for that matter. I am always absurdly optimistic when it comes to the unread pile. So, while it was entirely within character to add a book from the said shelf into my canvas bag, it was perhaps a slightly unlikely choice considering it was an impulse pick. (In the interest of wisely expending my time (and my life energy), I usually carefully research books and authors before adding them to my list – alas, at an immoderately rabid pace). And it was no small book – possibly the heaviest I’ve read in years (it’s shipping weight is 3.5 pounds on Amazon), but my excuse is that it was gorgeous. Irresistibly so.

Smitten though I was by it’s beauty, I wasn’t entirely sure if I would love the book – Habibi (2011) by Craig Thompson (graphic novelist and creator of Blankets). Habibi, also a graphic novel, is visually stunning in its drawings, the calligraphy, and the Islam-inspired artwork. Unfortunately, Habibi reads like a chaotic fairy tale.

Habibi (‘darling’ or ‘beloved’ in Arabic) is ostensibly the story of Zam and Dodola. Twelve-year old, doe-eyed Dodola and three-year old dark-skinned Zam escape slave traders and spend nine years together in a boat, beached in the middle of the desert. During this period, Dodola tells Zam stories from the Quran to “soothe him to sleep’, “bring us closer together”, “nurture his imagination”, “distract him from his hunger”. “motivate him to help with chores” and to teach him moral lessons. As Zam discovers later, Dodola regularly prostitutes herself to passing caravans in exchange for food and supplies. When Zam is twelve, Dodola is kidnapped by the agents of the Sultan of Wanatolia (where much of the story is set) and is placed in his harem. The rest of the story deals with Zam and Dodola’s painful experiences, how they finally unite, and their changing relationship. Or to be more accurate, the rest of the story deals, among a million other things, with how Zam and Dodola’s painful experiences, how they finally unite, and their changing relationship.

Habibi is a complex story with multiple themes – racism, religion, and the rampant disregard for the planet we live on, and the consequences of our disrespect, among many others. Thompson also weaves the past into the present, going back and forth in time. He also generously employs parables from the Quran and the Old Testament, and (I assume) emphasizes their common roots, but as someone who is not familiar with any of the Abrahamic religions, I cannot pretend to have been able to completely understand or appreciate them. I am however familiar with Hindu religion and culture and was surprised to see a Dodola in a saree, and references to a Hindu Goddess Bahuchara Mata, in a work otherwise clearly dominated by Islamic/Arabic influences.

Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of Bahuchara Mata  before (though mata is a common name for Hindu Goddesses) and turns out she “is considered patroness of—and worshipped by—the hijra community in India” (from Wikipedia). In Habibi, Bahuchara Mata is mentioned in the context of the eunuch community where Zam lives for a while.

I was also confused about the period the story was set in. Alongside the slave markets, harems and eunuchs that guard them, Thomson’s story contains water bottling plants, and high-rise buildings.

Thomson is clearly a skilled artist, and I found his complex fantasy to be sad, exquisite, and utterly cluttered.

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In the case of a purely instructional comic, particularly in the case of a behavioral or attitudinal piece, the specifics of the information are frequently overlarded with humor (exaggeration), to attract the reader’s attention, convey relevance, and set up visual analogies and recognizable life situations. This inserts ‘entertainment’ into a ‘technical work’.

Will Eisner in Comics and Sequential Art

Daniel H. Pink cleverly taps the comic’s potential to instruct and motivate in his The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, which he proclaims is The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need. Pink uses a small cast of characters, comprising of Johnny Bunko himself – a young, bored, uninspired management trainee who, Pink insists, is a “lot like you and me…a good person basically” and a spiky-haired, supernatural career counselor, Diana. Joining them are Bunko’s various bosses and sidekicks, all splendidly multi-ethnic in a story that aims to impart career-related wisdom.

Using a manga-like medium (even though it doesn’t read back-to-front or right-to-left like traditional manga does), is certainly an ingenious approach to dispense career advice. Pink also keeps his counsel pleasantly succinct: six rules, no more. He uses a simple narrative to prove his point, that these six lessons are all one needs for a satisfying, successful career. His style is not fussy or pedantic, and the story serves to make the rules sticky.

Clever, certainly, but calling it ‘the last career guide you’ll ever need’ might be stretching it far too much. Although Pink has done a fairly good job of distilling  his career lessons into six short, simple rules, I don’t necessarily agree with all of them:

  • There is no plan
  • Think strengths, not weaknesses.
  • It’s not about you.
  • Persistence trumps talent.
  • Make excellent mistakes.
  • Leave an imprint.

While the rest may qualify as excellent career advice, I do have a problem with Pink’s very first rule – ‘there is no plan’. While I agree with the premise that life is complicated and unpredictable and that there is no real way to map it all out, and that it is better to do “what turns you on”, I don’t think that might be the best career advice for everyone. Pink, via Diana, urges us to ape what successful people do and how they think:

…they understand what you and your dad and your college advisor don’t.

While our dads and our college advisors may know less about us than ourselves, I’ve found that sometimes the unlikeliest people can make you have an ‘aha’ moment or point you in the right direction. ‘There is no plan’ is probably not the best way to summarize this piece of advice, which emphasizes that parents, teachers and counselors are often wrong, and might only lead to young people shutting their ears to all but their own ideas. Yes, you cannot map it all out, and there is no real way to know if you’ve taken the best path. So, don’t chose a path that you know you will loathe, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, and talk to as many people as you can. And that, is a plan. Discover, network, converse. And modify your plan when and as you see fit.

In my experience, career advice is sometimes like fashion. It is exciting and new one season, and dated the next. When I was growing up, and looking for my first job (not all that long ago, actually), Pink’s advice would have been innovative and inspiring. I am talking about a time when we were urged to begin our resume with an Objective whose sole purpose was to announce what you wanted to do with your life. Most life aspirations sounded unoriginal, dull and insipid, something like ‘To gain knowledge and advance in my career’. We were also encouraged to stick with tried and tested routes that led to secure careers. Life has, since then, changed and so has the name of my hometown. Pink’s advice is hardly groundbreaking, but it is brief and pithy.

The plot is weak in places, but the characters and format are interesting enough that I’d recommend high schoolers and college students give it a try.

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Between 1940 and the early sixties the industry commonly accepted the profile of the comic book reader as that of a ’10-year old from Iowa’. In adults the reading of comic books was regarded as a sign of low intelligence.- Will Eisner in Comics and Sequential Art

Lamenting the lack of scholarly discussions on Sequential Art, an area that he thought deserved the consideration worthy of a valuable art form and medium of communication, Will Eisner condensed his vast knowledge on the theory and practice of comics in Comics and Sequential Art. The book, originally a collection of essays, is ostensibly for “the serious student, the working professional and the involved teacher”. I am neither and not exactly Eisner’s intended audience, but comics in general have in the past few decades been held in so much higher esteem than before and comics in various forms (from comic strips to full size graphic novels) have attracted such an enthusiastic following all over the world, that I feel it’s only natural that some non-artists will seek to satisfy their curiosity about the mechanics and thought processes that underlie the production of graphic literature. More recently, Scott McCloud’s comics about comics have offered much insight to comic aficionados.

Discussing core components and techniques used by comic creators, many of which are ubiquitous and yet invisible since the reader is often so wrapped up in the story that the methods are overlooked, Eisner liberally uses examples (many of which are his own Spirit stories) to illustrate concepts such as pantomimes, drawing on common experiences (such as our knowledge of how long it takes for a drop of water to drip from a faucet) and using appropriately sized and positioned panels to create a sense of time and rhythm, the use of panels to create  the required mood and tempo, and the use of gestures and postures to tell the story.

Comics are a unique art, similar to written works in that the reader’s eyes are free to roam and picture a scene in his mind’s eye, and similar to motion pictures in its use of images. And yet, comics invite the reader in a visual dialogue like no other art medium. The reader has more control over how he reads and interprets a comic (than a movie) and there is a tacit understanding between the artist and the reader on the rules that need to be followed to read the comic in the right order. Comic reading is an act of collaboration and requires a certain sophistication – to fill in the blanks between panels to constitute fluid action and to participate in the emotions described by the images- between the artist/creator and the reader/viewer. From fantasy, to instruction manuals, from full-sized graphic memoirs that deal with the entire spectrum of human emotions, to the ingenious use of animal metaphors in hard to classify works of brilliance, such as Maus, comics can be mature, funny, moving, complex and utterly captivating, whether you are a 10-year old or not. Indeed, Eisner had great hopes for the future of comics, especially the graphic novel:

The future of this form awaits participants who truly believe that the application of sequential art, with its interweaving of words and pictures, could provide a dimension of communication that contributes – hopefully on a level never before attained – to the body of lietrature that concerns itself with the examination of human experience….As for the receptivity of the audience, this must (and will) change and become sympathetic as the product delivers more and becomes more relevant.

What better time then to talk about the deliciously funny and heartrendingly honest graphic memoir Good Eggs  by Phoebe Potts.

But I love to teach. I love having meaningful, contained relationships with other people where they are vulnerable and I am helpful. And if I didn’t teach, the only other contact I would have with humanity is……in traffic…or exchanging money for good.

Good Eggs tells of the struggles Potts and her husband face as they grapple with infertility and experience hope, letdowns and frustration. Their baby making despair is interspersed with stories from Potts’ past- her family, her relationships and her ongoing battle with depression. Somehow, she manages to make this ordeal sound almost hilarious.

We’re naming them ‘Finally’ and ‘Agony'[on naming their imaginary twins].


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